If you write for yourself, you’re gonna be alone. And, you probably aren’t gonna sell more than 15-20 books, to poor souls who feel compelled to read it because of a close relationship. Now, perhaps you’re someone like Denise Richards, who has a fabulous self-story to tell that derives from your amazing aesthetic appeal and your ability to perform hot lesbian scenes in big Hollywood movies. If that’s you, get out of here and leave us alone.
For the rest of us, that want some modicum of success in selling our stories, we need to write what we are passionate about, but also with our readers in mind. To get these points across, I’m combining two interrelated topics: (1) why you write, and (2) branding.
WRITE WHAT YOU LOVE, WHILE ALWAYS BEING RESPECTFUL OF YOUR READERS
Let’s dispel something right off the bat. I’m not suggesting you should write what you think other people will like. You should write about what you love, and in a genre that feels like home to you. If you see steamy romance in your head, then please, take us into your boudoir. If you crave the life of a spy, then 007 us! But, while actually writing, you need to always be mindful of and respectful to your readers. Specifically, what does that mean? Here are some examples of what to avoid:
Excessive use of big words only shows you’re a Delta Bravo. No one is reading a book to see how many words you know.
Meandering, flowery and overly descriptive prose. No one cares if you can describe the minutea of the entryway to a plantation. As Hemingway said, “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”
Too much character development. I saw this in a book I recently read, and it killed the flow of the story. Remember elementary school? Show AND tell. So, tell us some of the aspects of your characters through narrative, but don’t forget to show us the personalities, traits and characteristics of your characters through action.
Get off the soapbox. Another example from the same book I just referenced. With some frequency, the author seemed to venture into her own thoughts and beliefs, and to force them out through the mouths of her characters. Nothing is so disruptive, and correspondingly rude, to your reader than forcing them to hear your beliefs. If your characters don’t believe it, don’t write it.
These are just a few examples, with the thrust being that you need to build trust with your readers through respectful and straightforward writing.
Part of building that trust is also respecting the fact that your readers will come back for more because of the brand you develop. Do you have a series with a main character? A series with a main world? Do you have a specific, and unique, style of writing? Think Jose Saramago with his lack of punctuation (which drives me nuts, but it’s certainly central to how he writes). If you do, this is a large part of what will ultimately become your brand. If you don’t, you may want to consider the fact that most successful authors have a niche genre or an identifiable set of characters that they stick with over a series of books, or their entire career. Sticking with your brand, and in doing so, sticking with what people have come to trust you to write, is central to success.
I got the next analogy from a recent concert by a rock band called Soundgarden. They were wildly popular in the 1990′s, but largely fell off the radar for the last decade. Their falling off (with fans at least) can be attributed to two things, in my opinion: (1) they changed their “sound,” becoming more mellow on their last album, and (2) when asked about the band and touring, Chris Cornell (the lead singer) replied, “We really enjoy it to a point, and then it gets tedious, because it becomes repetitious. You feel like fans have paid their money and they expect you to come out and play them your songs like the first time you ever played them. That’s the point where we hate touring.” Guess what though Chris, that’s just the point. And, it leads to our second rule:
ALWAYS BRING IT AS HARD AS THE FIRST TIME
We expect our favorite musicians to bring it like the first time they ever brought it. Why? That’s why we first fell love with them. Can the love evolve? Sure. But, the passion and same general sound needs to remain. When that passion fades, or even diminishes in the slightest, people can sniff it out like fresh dog crap on their shoes. Same goes for all of us as writers. One of the greatest example of having a brand, and then sticking to it and bringing the noise just like the first time, is Stephen King. Brand? Horror. Then, in pretty much each book he writes, King brings the horror with the same ferocity as he has his entire career. Getting back to Soundgarden, what about that concert I just saw? It was amazing. The venue was in a frenzy for two hours. People were stomping, pounding the air with their fists, and intermittently turning to strangers and their friends with ear-to-ear grins. Why? Soundgarden brought it like the first time, and they won each of us back for that night.
An implied part of the discussion so far is time. A brand does not come overnight. Soundgarden developed its sound over time, and their brand really came to fruition when grunge became popular in the early 1990′s. Likewise, it was only after countless novels that we knew King was a master of horror, or that we knew Koontz was a master of suspense thrillers, or that Ludlum could deliver a spy story like no other. On to the final rule!
DEVELOPING YOUR BRAND WILL TAKE EQUAL PARTS CONSISTENCY AND PATIENCE
McDonald’s (which I could devour right now, or just about anytime for that matter) is the quintessential example of branding in our country, if not the world. The golden arches. If you need a dollar menu, or a cheeseburger, or a place to hit the head, you look for the golden arches. Driving through even the remotest parts of the country, you know what you’re in for if you see the golden arches. Similarly, people need to be able to know, and trust, your writing. Building your own brand is going to take time (McDonald’s started in 1955) and consistency (think, Big Mac–nothing more consistent than that burger). But, a commonality with nearly every successful writer is a brand.
In short, if you can combine writing that respects your reader, while at the same time respecting why your reader loves you in the first place (i.e. your brand), then success is just around the corner.
[This blog isn't a vacuum. Take the opportunity, if you're a writer or an aspiring writer, to leave a comment as to the reason(s) why you write!]